What is the Difference Between Stain and Varnish

Stain and varnish are two products used for finishing wood. Although both enhance the appearance of wood, they have different purposes and offer unique benefits.

What is the difference between stain and varnish? Stains deeply penetrate wood while varnishes remain on the outside of the surface.

Key Areas Covered

1. What is Stain 
      – Definition, Features, Uses
2. What is Varnish
      – Definition, Features, Uses
3. Similarities Between Stain and Varnish
      – Outline of Common Features
4. Difference Between Stain and Varnish
      – Comparison of Key Differences
5. FAQ: Stain and Varnish
      – Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

Key Terms

Stain, Varnish, Wood

Difference Between Stain and Varnish - Comparison Summary

What is Stain

Wood stain is a coloured liquid applied to wood to enhance its natural beauty, highlight the grain, and achieve a desired color tone. Stain penetrates the wood surface. This penetration allows the grain to show through. This ultimately gives a natural and richer look to the wood.

There are many uses for wood stains. It can sometimes even out the colour of different wood types. It deepens the natural tones of wood. Stains are sometimes used together with sealers and varnishes. These provide a protective layer over the stain, enhancing the durability.


There are two main types of stains: dyes and pigments. Dyes are translucent and absorb into the wood fibers, dyeing them from within. Pigments, on the other hand, are opaque and rest on the surface of the wood, providing more color coverage. Stains can be water-based or oil-based. Water-based stains dry faster. They raise the wood grain slightly and require extra sanding. Meanwhile, oil-based stains differ from water-based stains by penetrating deeper, providing better water resistance, and having a longer dry time.

What is Varnish

Varnish is a clear and hard protective coating that beautifies the wood surfaces. Varnish offers a transparent film that enhances the natural wood grain. It often has a slightly yellowish tint. It comes in various finishes like high gloss and flat. Varnish even can be used with pigments (pigmented varnish) to give a colour.

Traditionally, varnish combines a drying oil, resin, solvent (thinner), and a metal drier to accelerate drying. But modern varnish sometimes uses alternative components. Varnish hardens after the application by evaporation or by the curing process. Moreover, the curing process involves chemical reactions between the oils and oxygen or between various varnish components.


The wood surface should be dry, clean and sanded smooth before the application of varnish. For best results, it is advised to apply multiple coats; each coat requires a drying time before applying the next. While applying and drying it is advised to have proper ventilation as the varnish fumes emitted can be strong.

There are many uses of varnish. It can protect the wood from UV rays, moisture and scratches. It also makes the grain shine, showcasing the natural beauty of wood.

Similarities Between Stain and Varnish

  1. Stain and varnish offer some level of protection to wood surfaces.
  2. Stain and varnish enhance the beauty of wood.
  3. Both stain and varnish require some level of surface preparation before application.
  4. Both stain and varnish come in various finishes.

Difference Between Stain and Varnish


  • Wood stain is a coloured liquid applied to wood to enhance its natural beauty, highlight the grain, and achieve a desired color tone. On the other hand, varnish is a clear and hard protective coating that beautifies wood surfaces.

Main Purpose

  • Stain is mainly used for colouring the wood while varnish is mainly used for protection.


  • Stain comes in a variety of colours, while varnish is clear or may include a faint tint.


  • Stain penetrates wood surfaces and dyes them from within, while varnish forms a film on the surface, providing protection.

Outer Surface

  • Stain does not alter the surface texture, whereas varnish creates a protective film.


Stain penetrates the wood, highlighting the grain and providing color, while varnish forms a protective film on the surface, offering durability against elements like moisture and UV rays. Thus, this is the main difference between varnish and stain.

FAQ: Stain and Varnish

1. Do I need to varnish after staining?

Yes, you need to apply varnish after staining. Stain mainly adds color and doesn’t provide much defense against scratches, water damage, or everyday wear and tear. Varnish creates a protective layer that seals the stain and shields the wood underneath.

2. What are the disadvantages of varnish?

One disadvantage is that varnish lacks breathability. Varnish forms a thin film on the surface of the wood. This film prevents the natural exchange of moisture between wood and the outside environment.

3. Which lasts longer, paint or stain?

Stain needs to be reapplied after 2-3 years while paint will last for 5-10 years. Hence, paint lasts longer than stain.

4. What are the disadvantages of stains?

Stain sometimes gets cloudy with time, specially if the top surface does not have a hard wax oil protection. Stained surfaces that are not protected can be subjected to marks like acid and watermarks.


1. “Wood Stain.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation.
2. “Varnish.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation.

Image Courtesy:

1. “Wood Stainer” By Igniateff (talk) 11:47, 18 March 2008 (UTC) – self-made (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia
2. “Varnish” By editor] – Flickr (CC BY 2.0) via Commons Wikimedia

About the Author: Hasini A

Hasini is a graduate of Applied Science with a strong background in forestry, environmental science, chemistry, and management science. She is an amateur photographer with a keen interest in exploring the wonders of nature and science.

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